Who Was Really at Fault for the Toyota Recalls?

What's being learned from this experience? Toyota is finding that the costs of losing their focus on quality are very high indeed and to their credit, they are implementing serious countermeasures. It is not clear the media have learned anything. Leading with unsubstantiated victim stories, and ignoring that driver error was a known important factor in unintended acceleration, was simply irresponsible. Where was the due diligence of TV reporters and print journalists? Even NHTSA retreated to the euphemism, "pedal misapplication." The media should have been capable of treating this issue more intelligently. No doubt, the 24-hour news cycle, the rush to release tidbits of information and the pressure to make judgments based on those tidbits, facilitated sloppy reporting. Perhaps this is an example of what James Fallows referred to in the April issue of The Atlantic, as giving the public what they want and not what they need. A caveat not mentioned by Toyota defenders is that driver error can be enhanced by poor design. As with many consumer products, it is increasingly expected of manufacturers that they design their products to minimize the probability of failure when consumers use those products in ways not intended by manufacturers. This is the new reality for all automakers, not just Toyota.

It is harder to fault NHTSA given all the uncertainty at the time. Yet, they have had years to study unintended acceleration; they should have learned something more useful in handling the recent events. They certainly should have had the courage to publicize the issue of driver error as a possible explanation much earlier than they did. They need a better understanding of how to release higher quality information in a way that insures public dissemination and inhibits public hysteria. If they could recall 3.8 million vehicles for pedal entrapment caused by improperly installed or stacked floor mats, based heavily on the Saylor crash, they should have been able to get this message through to the public, despite the media's party line on probable electronic causes. NHTSA officials did testify to Congress to this effect but they could have done much more to reach out to the public. On the policy level, some version of the airplane black box (Event Data Recorder) needs to be available to NHTSA officials on a consistent basis. This would allow comparisons across automakers and the matching of crashes on a database to identify common causes. A recorder which documented events at least 10 seconds prior to the crash would enable safety experts to move from a passive safety approach based on crash data to an active safety approach focused on prevention. There are all sorts of political obstacles to achieving this objective but it is a worthy one.

Finally, why is it so hard to get across the message to the public that people freeze up in crisis situations and can't remember what they did at such times? What can be done to better educate the public on this reality? There is a study worth doing.

1Ed. Wallace, "Toyota, The Media Owe You an Apology."

2Jeffrey Liker, Toyota Under Fire: Lessons for Turning Crisis into Opportunity, McGraw-Hill, 2011; "Toyota's Recall Crisis: What Have We Learned," Harvard Business Review.

Presented by

Robert E. Cole is professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business and the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting researcher at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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